Papa Does Preach: Hazeldine Adapts Heavy-handed Religious Melodrama
For his sophomore directorial effort, Stuart Hazeldine helms The Shack, an adaptation of the successful novel by William P. Young, becoming one of the latest in an increasing string of studio financed religious themed films created to feed the growing revivalist trend across the US comprised of audiences favoring conservative Christian themes. The troubling crop of virtuously themed entertainment for the masses should be alarming to those who struggle to seek representation of either free thought or enlightened attitudes in an industry (meaning Hollywood) which still peddles the cinematic art merely as a means for bottom line profit. At the same time, big screen religious interpretations simultaneously and insidiously cloak indefatigably archaic notions within superficial niceties and/or distracting melodrama. If Hazeldine’s film (as well as the original source novel, adapted here by three screenwriters, including Destin Cretton, director of indie hit Short Term 12) were divorced from its religious extrapolations, this study on forgiveness and judgment would be a more potently positive and inclusive message movie, but instead plays like a cornball examination so tone deaf to subtlety in the effort to hammer away at all its important messages this would have been better served had it been presented on a Christian themed Hallmark television broadcast.
Raised by an abusive, alcoholic father who was a prominent member of the church, Mackenzie Phillips (Sam Worthington) left behind a traumatic childhood to become a healthy adult, raising three children of his own with wife Nan (Radha Mitchell). Skeptical of religion and already leery of God thanks to a defining experience with his father, Mackenzie’s faith is tested when his youngest daughter is abducted and murdered by a serial killer of children. Sinking into despair, he receives a mysterious typewritten letter from Papa (the nickname Nan uses when she refers to who they worship) inviting him to ‘the shack,’ the place where the last signs of his dead daughter were found. But when Mackenzie arrives, he discovers a beautiful cottage inhabited by three beings (Octavia Spencer, Avaraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara) all claiming to be composites of God (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) who are there to guide him through his grief so he may again focus on his potential as a human being. Resistant to the idea of believing in a deity who is all powerful but would allow his innocent child to be tortured, Mackenzie is eventually worn down by their (or rather, His) good will.
As it stands, The Shack seems like Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven relocated to (and hollowing out) the magical metaphor of The Enchanted Cottage (1945). Throughout its various, often belabored stretches of endless dialogue wherein Worthington is lectured by God’s triumvirate of human personifications (much like those ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), nuggets of meaningful wisdom are sometimes unveiled as concerns a process of navigating human grief through a situation impossible for anyone to imagine unless they’ve experienced such a tragic loss first hand. Attempts for the film to convey the Judeo-Christian deity as a forgiving rather than wrathful entity are often belabored.
The casting of Octavia Spencer as an empathetic rendering of God is an inspired choice, but the screenplay tries too plaintively to neuter her capabilities (of all the musical references, Octavia as God name drops Neil Young), and loses the tricky balance of cementing gendering representations in what appears to be heaven (a place where impatience is not known but the biological differences between men and women are), and the innate distinctions of what a mother vs. a father can do (Spencer as God is an amazing cook, while the ‘human’ foods his wife and neighbor ingest, like a ‘rice thing’ and a chicken pot pie seem underlined dramatically in the dialogue), while Graham Greene appears as a last minute rendering to assist in a highly sanitized and fantastical final movement during Worthington’s oeuvre of grief.
And for a film opening with an act of patricide, The Shack sure lets its protagonist off the hook with a sequence where he barely mumbling over this drastic deed during a moment when color coded souls float over a magical field meant to convey how God sees His children (but really seems like the same rendering of how the eponymous creature in Predator hunts its prey). As far as production design, the overtly glossy film lacks any real character, the spiffy cabin occupied by the trio of Fates lounging about in a home which appears to be like an ad from a sale at Room & Board or Pier 1.
Awkward narration from a distracting and unnecessary Tim McGraw also cheapens the proceedings. And if Octavia Spencer is once more portraying the placating and supportive black character on hand for the emotional or physical needs of white protagonists (The Help; Gifted; even Bad Santa 2), Radha Mitchell is yet another thankless woman on the sidelines, her chemistry as equally lacking with Worthington (who is about a decade too young for the role, while his Aussie accent sometimes break free during moments of emotional upheaval) as it was in the equally silly (not to mention problematic in terms of white, American privilege as the narrative focal point) London Has Fallen opposite Gerard Butler.
Even as The Shack surprisingly sidesteps the heavy-handed aura of manipulation usually evident in religious themed films, it would be more interesting to see an English language venture utilizing some other characteristic spiritual rhetoric rather than deign to speak to all creeds but insist on using specifically Christian parameters.
Without a doubt, The Shack has a sincere, meaningful message at its core, and will likely move many to unexpected deliberations with moments of poignant judiciousness—and perhaps as act as a bridge between extreme attitudes since the film offers the opportunity for a compromising middle ground as regards the subject of spirituality and religion as a whole. However, as a piece of filmmaking, The Shack is as graceless as its monosyllabic title, and one wonders when the archaic modalities of religion will no longer hinder global progress (or representations of it) in realizing notions of equality, empathy, forgiveness, mutual respect, and other essences specific to the experience of humanity—kind of how it hinders the otherwise compassionate story folded somewhere in The Shack. Until then, the blinders known as our good intentions will only lead us down a path somewhere else.